WASHINGTON — The good news: Eighth-graders in the United States are exceeding the international average in math and science among 38 nations, including top Asian math powers.
There's also no gender gap in mathematics here, unlike in many other countries. And black students in the US are significantly improving in both math and science.
The bad news: As fourth-graders, the US students ranked even higher above other nations. In other words, the US is losing ground globally in what it is learning about algebra and arthropods.
These are among the conclusions of a long-awaited study on the math and science prowess of US middle-school students. The report, the first of its kind in five years, gives both critics and supporters of US education policy something to trumpet.
When the fourth-grade results for the 1995 International Mathematics and Science Study came out, President Clinton marked the event with a Rose Garden ceremony - the top venue for good news in US politics. American fourth-graders ranked above the international average in math, and were outperformed only by Korea in science.
But the test results for eighth-graders had been merely average, and the 12th-grade results were dismal: US high school seniors ranked near the bottom of the world in general math and science - outperforming only Cyprus and South Africa.
Experts at the time suggested that the fourth-graders' performance better reflected the effects of recent education reforms, and predicted that as these younger students moved through school, there would be similarly strong results at higher grade levels.
That didn't happen.
If this cohort of eighth-graders continues to follow previous trends, they will be close to the bottom of the world by the time they graduate.
"This finding validates the results of the previous 1995 study that after the fourth grade, students in the United States fall behind their international peers as they pass through the school system," comments Dr. Gary Phillips, acting commissioner of education statistics.
It's this possibility that's likely to make the test a political flashpoint in the months to come. With Congress gridlocked on education policy, educators are using issues raised in this test to argue for more targeted support for the classroom.
"If we're going to look at international math and science scores, we've got to look at the extent to which all children in America have access to qualified teachers in these areas," says Chuck Williams, director for teacher quality at the National Education Association. "Youngsters in urban communities have less chance to have a teacher who is licensed in math and science than in any other area," he adds.
US eighth-grade students are less likely than their international peers to be taught math by teachers who majored in the subject (41 percent versus 71 percent).
There are also considerable differences in teaching style and curriculum. For example, US classrooms attempt to cover many more subjects in a year than high-performing classrooms in other countries. And eighth-grade students spend less time than their international peers studying mathematics or science outside of school.
One of the reasons US officials backed a repeat of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS-R) was to help sort out these issues.
"There was a real interest in finding out whether these fourth-graders of 1995 were different than eighth- or 12th-graders, so we followed them as a cohort," says Eugene Owen, director of the international activities program at the National Center for Education Statistics.
The 1995 12th-grade results had been a "sonic boom," he says, both in the United States and in Germany, where students had been expected to perform much better than the US and did not. (Germany did not participate in the repeat of the test.)
For policymakers, a key question is why US students' performance relative to the global average decreases as grade levels increase.
To help correct these problems, US officials place hope in a new video series associated with this test that shows how teachers in high-performing countries teach math and science. The series, to be released in 2002, looks at classrooms in Japan, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Australia, as well as the US.
"Some US teachers have the idea that most kids can't learn algebra; even parents believe it. But that's not true in other countries," says James Stigler, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. "You end up holding yourself to a lower standard than is necessary, and ultimately that's not good for the nation."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society